Yesterday, one of my favorite working designers, Jessica Hische, posted this great flow-chart on her personal conditions for taking on a project without pay.
That’s great for already-successful designers, but more often than not, students are expected to work for free. I hear a lot of debate from both sides of the issue: my mom and design professor think it’s generally unreasonable to offer an unpaid position. I can understand the logic behind their views; they hold that if you are helping someone, you should be compensated.
The reality of being a student in today’s economic environment, particularly in a field as competitive as graphic design, however, tells me a different story, and gives me a philosophy that I feel strongly about. Compensation isn’t always monetary, and there is a lot to be said about the virtues of someone who will work for experience alone. So I compiled a kind of “checklist” for students like me who take and even seek out unpaid internships.
1. Pay attention to the details
I knew right away that I wanted my current internship for a variety of obvious reasons, but I felt good about applying because of the way I was treated throughout the process. Even in the job listing, my boss signed off with “best” and gave her direct line for questions. Pay attention to these details! If the job listing says “We need a design student to be our intern. Unpaid. Drop your resume here,” think twice before applying. An employer worth your time will be upfront with you about what the position entails and should be personable if you are granted an interview. If they act as though the interview is not worth their time, do not accept. A good boss will remember what it was like to be a student and appreciate the help you are offering them.
2. Believe in the organization
I don’t know a lot of people who could feel great about putting in unpaid hours for a multimillion dollar corporation that abuses workers abroad. Working free for a non-profit or small business, however, can be a truly rewarding experience, and one that hosts a more personal atmosphere. If you do have to resort to the former, at least make sure the organization’s name will provide enough of a boost to your resume to be worth it- and that the people you directly work with have better morals than the tycoons who run the place.
3. Take pride in a job well done
Chances are, if you have been hired to work for free, your employer is not going to ask you to head up a major project, or even a minor one. Accept that before you begin, and complete whatever tasks you are assigned with great care and respect. No task is unimportant enough to be done poorly. Setting high standards for all of your work, no matter how irrelevant it may seem, keeps you motivated and teaches you to focus on the process instead of the payoff (a good mindset to keep for when you are eventually salaried).
4. Get to work
A position that does not pay is not a position in which to slack off. Think about it this way: after your internship is done, what will you have to show for it? In an unpaid position, this will not include a surplus of funds in your bank account. Sure, you can put in minimal effort and have an extra line under “work experience” on your resume. But if you really take advantage of this opportunity, you can also leave with some great references, a new skill set, and a work ethic that makes you a better candidate for paid positions. Show up on time (early if you can), offer to stay late, and maintain a good attitude. It won’t go unnoticed.
(On a related note, check out David Airey’s post on unpaid internships. And if you are a Wisconsin student looking for a great internship, check out the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the future. They have provided me with an amazing position and are a fantastic group of people who will treat you like gold.)